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What to expect from Chinese defence minister's visit

Last updated on: September 01, 2012 22:59 IST

Some bold measures from Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie and his Indian counterpart A K Antony are essential to make the former's visit successful, notes Srikanth Kondapalli.

From Sunday, China's Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie would be visiting India for four days heading a 23 member delegation composed of military officers including those deployed from Tibet and South China Sea.

The visit comes after eight years when his predecessor Cao Gangchuan met his Indian counterpart George Fernandez in March 2004. Liang himself visited Delhi in 2005, but as the chief of army staff.

Expected to retire after the next month's 18th Communist Party Congress, the 71-year old Liang's trip should not be seen simply as a lame duck visit. Coming as it were after a long time the visit as such is useful in enhancing military exchanges -- one of the main objectives of the 2006 MoU between the two defence ministries.

As the two militaries are increasing their modernisation efforts, it is necessary that the communication channels are kept open for regional stability.

The two defence ministers have met before in different fora -- at the Shangri La Dialogue, Annual Defence Ministerial Meeting in Southeast Asia, etc. Yet, the current visit is significant in seeking clarifications, enhancing trust and unveiling potential future plans for cooperation in new areas.

Secondly, while no concrete military cooperation exists between these two rising neighbours apart from the low-level counter-terror drills and search and rescue operations or acrobatic air performances, enhancing confidence building measures between the tri-services of the two militaries is essential for avoiding conflict on the unresolved territorial dispute and maintaining peace and tranquility in the border regions.

This is in the light of break-neck military modernisation in Tibet, which included deployment of newer versions of long-range J-10 and Su-27 fighter aircraft, Tu-154M surveillance planes and missiles to the region but also the 20-odd major military exercises or training activities conducted by China in the last one-and-half years in Tibet.

Also, there has been a perceptible increase in the coercive diplomatic statements from China on India in the recent period. The Indian side will get a chance to seek clarifications from the Chinese side about the security dilemmas triggered by such moves in Tibet.

Thirdly, given the announcement about the gradual withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan from 2014, India and China are contemplating, along with Russia and Central Asian republics, comprehensive regional security measures to counter drug trafficking and terrorism.

Liang's visit could further enhance understanding with India in this regard, although so far both have not unveiled any concrete plan in this regard with the exception of moves to build infrastructure and extraction of minerals in Afghanistan.

Defence Minister A.K. Anthony is expected to discuss with Liang a number of issues affecting bilateral and regional security. Yet, it would be an exaggeration to expect any major breakthrough in defence ties between the two countries. For, a number of contentious issues divide these two Asian neighbours.

While territorial dispute resolution is outside the purview of the current visit, re-starting counter-terror operations could enhance the value of this visit. In the Indian perception, although both Indian and Chinese troops have conducted "hand-in-hand" counter-terror operations (at Kunming in 2007 and at Belgaum in 2008), these are preliminary in nature bordering on non-seriousness.

There is also the Chinese reluctance to be critical of Pakistan's actions on cross border terrorism or even shielding some groups in the United Nations Security Council resolutions. In contrast the annual "Friendship" exercises between the special operation forces between China and Pakistan are of higher value.

Again, even though General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of China, suggested during the 4th Annual Dialogue between the two militaries in December, 2011, at New Delhi that there are no regular soldiers from China in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, there have been several reports to the contrary that construction and engineering corps (who were earlier part of China's military) are actively engaged in dual-use infrastructure projects in the region.

China's assurance in this regard could go a long way in not triggering counter-moves from New Delhi.

On the South China Sea islands as well, the two sides have been making counter-moves, with some reports suggesting a deal at the G-20 meeting in Mexico on possible Indian acquisitions of energy blocks even as Vietnam had extended the Block 128 to the Indian firm recently. China had exhibited coercive diplomacy although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conveyed that the Indian acquisitions are for "commercial" purposes.

Maritime issues are likely to be discussed in the Anthony- Liang meeting, as the composition of the Chinese delegation with representative from Guangzhou military region indicates.

For the visit as such to become successful, some bold measures from Liang and Anthony are essential. These steps include verifiable conventional military demobilisations, strategic arms reductions from either side, de-targeting nuclear agreement and the like.

These would go a long way in ushering lasting peace in the region. It is not clear, however, whether China and India would measure up to these challenging tasks.

The author is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Srikanth Kondapalli